AMERICAN CINEMA PAPERS
TAORMINA FILM FESTIVAL - 1985
by Harlan Kennedy
is 30 years since Esther Williams last
had dealings with the Ancient Roman Empire. Who could forget that stirring chorus
from Jupiter's Darling, "Ha-nni-bal! (rum-ti-tum) Ha-nnib-bal!",
when Esther, Howard Keel, and a large
number of elephants sang and danced
their way through Italy? It gave a whole new perspective on the Punic Wars. Now she was back in the sun-wracked splendor of the ancient world: namely Sicily. She lined
up with Eva Marie Saint, Jaqueline Bisset, and Tony Curtis, the Taormina Film Festival's four guest stars from Hollywood. They
were paraded around town in glittering earnest that this was the year
the Taofest was out
to become Italy's biggest showcase for new U.S. movies.
For this year's American Film Week at Taormina,
the festival's third, many of the pics' perpetrators
were flown in: Susan Seidelman of Desperately
Seeking Susan; John Glen of A
View to a Kill; Chuck Norris of Code of Silence; that
crowd. In addition, Jack Valenti represented
many a big smile, striped shirt, and message
of interest. He even flashed his racket
out on Center
at Taormina's tennis club (6-0, 6-0, 6-0).
Nightly the U.S.
movies were skywritten on the giant screen of the 2,000-year-old Greco-Roman theater. The honey-stoned bowl,
cradled between sea and stars, rang to the
gladiatorial duel between famous American
stars and the Italian dialogue they were
dubbed into. These incongruities didn't
bother the 20,000-strong audiences ranged
on the worn stone seats. They cheered
the movies, and they cheered more
loudly the makers and megastars brought
shyly onto the platform to take a bow,
including many luminaries from the Italian cinema: Gina Lollobrigida, wearing a sumptuous gown and cutaway smile; Giulietta Masina; Claudia
Giancarlo Giannini; Lena Wertmuller (on the jury); Sergio Leone, in Taormina to open an exhibit of photos fromOnce Upon a Time in America.
Once offstage, they diversified fascinatingly. Three years ago in Taormina you could
not part a cypress tree without finding
Tennessee Williams behind it. This year you had only to take an innocent stroll through the San Domenico
Hotel gardens to stumble upon Jaqueline Bisset. With the paparazzi popping their tungstens, Bisset
was plugging her HBO film Forbidden.
She was also praising Italy. "I love Italy," she said in answer to such questions as "Is there a mystical element to the infrastructure of your film?" and "What lured you to
the role of the Silesian countess
who defies the Nazis?" Pressed
further, she would add, "I have
always been a great admirer of Antonioni.
It's the sign of a true star
that, like Garbo, her hair blows the wrong way when she stands
on the edge of a ship or hotel terrace. Bisset's was blowing thus. So was Esther Williams' when I saw her standing by the pool at the San Domenico.
The big question on everyone's
lips at Taormina was: Will
she go in? Esther kept us in suspense for several days, during which she merely inserted a discreet toe into the shallow end and smiled with effulgent courtesy at the press, most of whom
were disguised (like me) as
A critic cannot, however, stay
at the shallow end of events at a film festival; he must discover the matters of moment that lie beneath the surface mardi gras. I rang
Jack Valenti. I asked him why Hollywood had booked
this mass package holiday to Taormina.
VALENTI: Hi, Harlan. Nice to talk to you.
KENNEDY: Hello, Jack. Jack, why
has Hollywood booked this mass package holiday to Taormina?
VALENTI: Glad you asked me.
We're here to give American films the
biggest possible showcase before
they begin their theatrical run in Italy.
Were also working with Italian exhibitors
to try and lengthen the movie
season. At present most Italian theaters close at Easter and reopen in
September, due to lack of
air-conditioning or the expense of providing it. It doesn't need to be that way. The audiences we've had in Taormina prove movies can be popular – and should be popular – the whole year round.
So we're investing a lot of energy into
this, the third American Film Week here, and we're already making
plans for next year. Taormina is going to be the top launching pad for
into the Italian market.
So this was the Hollywood
plan: to break into Italy
from the south, like Garibaldi. No
wonder they had brought Esther Williams with them. Memories of Hannibal and Howard
Keel would completely confuse the
opposition. They would expect the invasion
to come from the north over the Alps, with
large and clumsy beasts of burden like the new Burt Reynolds pic miraculously navigating the snow and ice.
But how would the world's stars and directors respond, once having entered Italy, when they discovered their offspring mixing interlingually
and speaking with foreign
Susan Seidelman told me over the phone. `An expert
job," was John Glen's verdict
on the dubbing of A View to a
Kill. "The Italians are
the best in the world at this. They got all the nuances, even to a change of tone whenever Roger Moore curls his lip!" And
Chuck Norris, after seeing Il Codice del Silenzio, said, 'They must have gone through hundreds of guys – my character's voice sounded just like mine, even in Italian. And the theater is great. When you've heard 20,000 people cheering on your picture, it spoils you for Radio City Music Hall."
Nothing, though, could spoil me for Esther Williams. Back at the San Domenico pool I had prepared my boldest plan yet to catch her in flotante. Days of synchronized-swimming rehearsal with my friend
Jill, during which I held my tape recorder arm-high above the water while backstroking
at her side, prepared me for the watery
interview. This would surely astound
my publishers and secure the handsome
advance I needed for my forthcoming
biog, Dangerous When Esther.
But I had no sooner reached the
Domenico gardens when I saw a crowd of paparazzi gathered round the pool. Their cameras were clicking like cicadas while something long, white, and surfy
streaked back and forth in the
water. This was bad news. If Esther was doing a high-speed crawl instead of a ladylike backstroke, I
needed more time and a waterproof tape recorder.
I went back to the hotel and the drawing
Every evening in Taormina, just when you thought life was one long star-hunt, there were the films. While playing Prince Charming to Hollywood, the Taofest also plays
Svengali to world cinema: running a Main Competition for first and second works by new directors. Nightly in the San Nicolo cinema (converted puppet theater) and the
Olimpia (sliding roof opens to stars, night breezes, and neighboring windows where Sicilian families scream, play, eat, and grind coffee) you may witness the teething
pains of films from Norway, New Zealand,
Russia, Britain, the Philippines, and
the Ivory Coast.
Taormina has its share of clinkers each year. It would take a heart of anthracite not to
giggle at John Reid's Leave All
Fair, where Sir John Gielgud quavers miscastly
through the role of John Middleton Murry, ex-husband of writer Katharine Mansfield (Jane Birkin). In sunlit French scenery J.M.M. recalls his life with Kath and their circle of ever-so-robust literary chums. "Lawrence
and I used to shoulder our rucksacks and
sally forth into the countryside;" croons Sir John, who looks unlikely to have shouldered anything more testing in his youth than a Vuitton
picnic basket. This New Zealand
film should have been made with a built-in laugh track.
We may also speed past such films as Tikoy Aguiluz' steamily catchpenny Ang Bangkero
(Boatman), where a young man and woman try to make ends meet, more than figuratively, in Manila's live sex-show business; or Dutch director Dimitri
Frenkel Frank's De Ijssalon
(The Ice Cream Parlour), set
in Nazi-occupied Holland, where Bruno Ganz and Renee Soutendijk wade through a tutti-frutti script knee-deep in winsome overemphasis.
Robilant's nuttyish film
per Amore (Only for Love), was something else. "Brambilla has a friend called Bongo, who is a nasty semi-blind character. Madeddu,
the policeman, madly in love with Brambilla, shoots
himself in front of her." For once the fractured literalism of a pidgin-English press synopsis captures the film's crazy-paved spirit. Weaving its way through such everyday matters as murder, voyeurism, suicide, and the drinking of dog's blood, the movie shows that even non sequiturs and near-insanity can be part of life's rich woof. E.M. Forster's
"Only connect" here becomes a more Mediterranean
"Only collide:" Robilant and his British
cameraman, David Scott (both
graduates of the London Film School), inflect street-life neo-realism with comic-strip costumes and cutting, and with a claustrophobic kismet where everyone keeps bumping into the last person he wants to. Larky, lissome, and original.
Hail also to Désiré Ecaré's Visage
des Femmes (Faces of Woman), where feminism hits the Ivory Coast. Tribal costumes, karate, dancing, the
economics of fish markets, and red-hot sex in a river. What more would you want? And hail to Gianni Lepre's perky Oye for Oye (An Eye for an Eye), which marries, somewhat at the point of a shotgun, an insurance-fraud thriller with a Fassbinderish love tale between young Arab and older Norwegian lady.
The Golden Cariddi top prize went to Juzo Itami's Ososhiki (Funerals), a natty iconoclastic
comedy about the Japanese way of death. Britain's Maggie Smith and Liz Smith both copped acting prizes for the pig pic A
Private Function. These guerdons were lavished on grateful recipients at the
last-night gala in the Teatro Antico.
Every year at this event, under a sparkling Mediterranean sky, three hours of insane televised show biz unfurl: dancing chorines, stand-up comics, ladies in leotards, pratfalling pagliacci. At the end the one moment of
true magic happens: Everyone in the outdoor auditorium lights a candle
in gratitude. As the flames multiply, it's like a
convocation of fireflies, or the Ave Maria sequence in Fantasia
seen through a kaleidoscope. There are more pinpoints of light than there are superstars gathered on the Teatro Antico stage.
The only cloud over Taormina's triumphs
this year was the illness of fest chief Guglielmo Biraghi, who has
built this event up from an
egg-and-spoon race in the Seventies
to a big-time, smooth-running festival. This year Biraghi
lay in his Taormina
hotel amid a spaghetti of drip-feeds suffering a severe bout of sciatica. Midway he was rushed
to a hospital in Messina and
back. Felice auguri, Guglielmo, and the speediest possible recovery.
My final glimpse of the Taormina Festival was of Esther
Williams. Or should have been.
In the last hour before my taxi was due I
headed to the Domenico. Unfortunately, when I got there, I was told that Signorina Williams had just flown back to
I had missed her by minutes.
I turned away disgruntled. But I had not got far before a cloud
of paparazzi were at my heels,
clicking their lenses, flashing their
pencils, and asking me questions in overlapping
Italian. To my horror, I learned that
they had seen me so often, a shyly retiring
Galahad in the distant wake of Miss Williams, that they thought I was a fellow star and perhaps the lady's Mediterranean escort. I attempted roundly to disabuse them, but in the end I had to give up and hold
a press conference.
PAPARAZZI [passim]: Is your relationship with Miss Williams personal, professional, or
artistic?/ Do you think the political
attitudes of Million Dollar Mermaid are
revisionist or Gramscian?/
Is Miss Williams planning a return to
KENNEDY: I love Italy and have always been an admirer of Antonioni....
THIS ARTICLE APPEARED IN THE OCTOBER 1985 ISSUE OF FILM COMMENT.
©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved.